Tag Archives: rare metals

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

Who Bears the Costs of Technology? Lynas and Hazardous Waste from Rare Earths

Companies and governments around the world are anxiously watching the fate of a sprawling industrial facility 30 kilometers north of this city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.The 100-hectare Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces 10% of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), minerals needed in technologies including mobile phones, hard drives, fiber optic cables, surgical lasers, and cruise missiles. Lynas, an Australian company, imports concentrated ores from mines on Mount Weld in Australia and refines them in Malaysia, where costs are lower; it sells REOs—which include cerium compounds, used in catalytic converters, and neodymium, critical to permanent magnets—to Japan, the United States, and other countries. The plant produced almost 18,000 tons of REOs in 2018.

Now, the LAMP faces closure, barely 7 years after it opened. Environmental groups have long opposed the storage on the site of slightly radioactive waste from the extraction process, and they found a sympathetic ear in a new government elected in May 2018. In December 2018, the government demanded that the facility ship its radioactive waste back to Australia if it wants to renew its operating license, which expires on 2 September. On 12 March 2019overnment task force to help organize the shipments was announced. But the company says exporting the more than 451,000 tons of residue by the deadline is “unachievable.”

 A shutdown would be “a significant event with a ripple effect,” says Ryan Castilloux, a metals and minerals analyst at Adamas Intelligence in Amsterdam. For one thing, the shutdown would strengthen China’s position as the dominant supplier of REOs, which many countries deem a strategic risk. Japan’s electric vehicle industry, for instance, would lose its main supplier of REOs for permanent magnets; “it would have to reestablish a relationship with China after almost a decade of friction” in the REO trade, Castilloux says…. “Although rare earth oxides production worldwide is only worth several billions of dollars, it is essential for industries worth trillions,” Castilloux says.

Rare earth deposits themselves are not scare..Refining them takes lots of corrosive chemicals and generates huge amounts of residue. China was long the sole supplier; when it reduced exports in 2010, citing environmental concerns, prices jumped as much as 26-fold and major consumers scrambled for alternate sources. Lynas has become a “flagship” of REO production outside China, Castilloux says. The United States and Myanmar mine REEs as well, but they are processed in China, which today produces about 89% of the global REO output…

But in Malaysia, the waste has raised red flags. At the LAMP, concentrated ores are roasted with sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths and then diluted with water in a process called water leach purification, leaving a moist, pastelike residue. By September 2018, the LAMP had already produced 1.5 million tons of residue; because the ores contain thorium and uranium, almost 30% of it is slightly radioactive.  Some REO facilities elsewhere have built permanent, secure facilities to store such waste, says Julie Klinger, a geographer and expert in REO mining at Boston University; others are secretive about what they do with it.  Radioactivity isn’t the only risk…heavy metals as ickel, chromium, lead, and mercury could contaminate groundwater.

Excerpts by Yao-Hua, Radioactive waste standoff could slash high tech’s supply of rare earth elements, Science Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018

The Power Plays in Africa

As the overthrow of despot Robert Mugabe entered a stalemate on November 17,  2017, eyes turned to China — Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor and a key ally — amid speculation over its role in the military coup.Source in Harare believe the Zimbabwean conflict within the ruling party Zanu PF is involving two rival camps has direct links to China and Russia with both countries trying to control and protect their own economic interests.

The army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, visited Beijing l — just days before tanks rolled into the streets of Harare. President Mugabe has been been hostile to the Chinese in recent years accusing them of plundering the countries diamonds worth $15 billion.  On October 2017 First Lady Grace Mugabe was in Russia where she represented her 93-year-old husband at a function where he was honoured with some accolade in Russia at the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) in Moscow.

“It is a BRICS internal rivalry with both Russia and South Africa on one side trying to protect their economic interests and China on the other side,” a regional think-tank in London said on November 17, 2017… Russia has been investing in several projects in southern African nations, for example, the ALROSA group of diamond mining companies is engaged in several projects in Zimbabwe, while mining and steelmaking company Evraz and Severstal steel and steel-related mining company conduct their business in South Africa.

Russia and South Africa, which together control about 80% of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals, have created a trading bloc similar to OPEC to control the flow of exports according to Bloomberg.

Zimbabwe, Canada, and the U.S. are among other major platinum group metals producers.

Russian and South African officials signed a memorandum of understanding today to cooperate in the industry.South Africa mines about 70 percent of the world’s platinum, while Russia leads in palladium, a platinum group metal used in autocatalysts, with about 40% of output, according to a 2012 report by Johnson Matthey Plc.

According to the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe (CMZ) and geologists, Zimbabwe has far bigger platinum reserves than Russia. The country currently has the second known largest platinum reserves after South Africa. Experts say underfunding and limited exploration has over the years stifled growth of the mining sector.

The Zimbabwe chamber is on record saying it seeks to increase production to the targeted 500 000 ounces per annum requires the setting up of base and precious metal smelters and refineries, investment of $2,8 billion in mines, $2 billion in processing plants and between $200 and $500 million to ensure adequate power supply. Already, the country’s major platinum miners – Zimplats, Unki and Mimosa who are currently processing the metal in neighbouring South Africa – have undertaken to construct the refinery….

Miles Blessing Tendi, a lecturer in African history and politics at the University of Oxford, says there is no way to be certain if China knew about Mugabe’s fate but believes China’s respect for sovereignty would make their involvement uncharacteristic.

Excerpt, It gets ugly as Russia and South Africa gang-up against China over Zimbabwe coup, http://www.thezimbabwemail.com/, November 17, 2017

The Hunger for Rare Metals

Indium, part of an iPhone’s screen, is an “invisible link…between the phone and your finger”. Just a pinch of niobium, a soft, granite-grey metal mined mostly in Brazil, greatly strengthens a tonne of steel used in bridges and pipelines. Lithium is so light that it has become essential for rechargeable car-batteries. Dysprosium, as well as making an electric toothbrush whirr, helps power wind turbines. Military technology depends on numerous rare metals. Tungsten, for instance, is crucial for armour-piercing bullets. America’s forthcoming F-35 fighter planes are “flying periodic tables”, Mr Abraham writes….[T]he “long tailpipe” of pollution left in the wake of mining and refining, rare metals..

Supplies are also a worry. In 2010 a Chinese trawler rammed Japanese coastguard vessels in waters near islands called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese (their ownership is disputed by both countries). After the Chinese captain was detained, supplies of rare metals from the mainland to Japan suspiciously dried up. Though China never acknowledged an export ban, the incident caused rare-metal prices to spike, and unsettled manufacturers around the world. …

[The business of rare metals] generates $4 billion of revenues a year and also plays a critical role in systems worth about $4 trillion. China, which develops more rare metals than any other country, understands the calculus. The West, his book suggests, does not.

Excerpts from Rare metals: Unobtainiums, Economist, Jan. 16,  2016 (Book Review of ‘The Elements of Power by  D. Abraham]